Inter Faith in Action - Perspectives


The Significance of Buddhism for the West: A Special Case for Interfaith Concerns in the Anglican Communion

It is an undeniable fact that Buddhism has come to play a significant role in the contemporary global community.  This is particularly true about the West at large and Australia which I am representing at this consultation.  Of course, Buddhism has played and continues to play a very important role in South and South East Asia too. However, there is a difference. Buddhism is a “native” religion of “Asia” and therefore its influence in the lives of the people of Asian is natural. Given that the history of the West was predominantly influenced by Christianity since the 3rd Century CE, the increasing influence of this South Asian religion – Buddhism – in the West must be carefully studied and understood. This is a must for the church and the Anglican Communion’s interfaith concerns. 

What is generally called Buddhism is a philosophy of life which is made up several schools of thought which are either branches or adaptations of the three main traditions: Hinayana (the “Small Vehicle” which is also known as Theravada, the “teaching” or the “tradition” of the Elders), Mahayana (the Great Vehicle) & Vajirayana (the Diamond Vehicle).

The Buddhism which is practiced by an increasing number of Australians and westerners at large is either a tradition that represents one of the three traditions or a more eclectic form of “Buddhism” which is made up of elements from all three traditions which can be easily adapted to contemporary thought forms. This form of Buddhism is known as Nawayana (the new vehicle).

I have a particular interest (both academic and personal) in the traditional schools of Buddhism as well as their recent adaptations in the West. This interest has helped me to understand why Buddhism has come to fascinate the minds of traditionally Christian individuals and western nations. This understanding is important to make a contribution to interfaith-dialogue in general and to Buddhist-Christian dialogue in particular. The contribution Buddhism can offer is unique on many fronts. For instance, Buddhism has the following particularities which must be noted by the serious inquirer of interfaith matters:

  • Buddhism operates outside the theistic framework of reference. (While Mahayana and Vajrayana forms of Buddhism make numerous reference to gods (devas) one must note that they do not constitute a distinct theo-logy).
  • Buddhism is not a “faith tradition” in the sense which we have come to use the phrase conventionally.
  • Buddhism defies every thought category that is central to the Christian outlook and western worldview (eg. Self, God and History)

I became very conscious of these issues in the recent discussions that I was very privilege to have with Archbishop Rowan Williams and Prof. Keith Ward – they were distinguished visiting scholars in 2002 and 2003 at Trinity College where I lecture. While their brilliant lectures had much to offer to very fundamental questions we ask today, it became obvious to me that their fundamental assumptions, theological propositions and arguments belong to what we might call the “theological circle.”

Another good example I can think of to demonstrate the point I am making is the wonderful lecture that Fr. Michael Amaladoss SJ delivered to this gathering. In that lecture he underlined mission as God’s initiative. It is, indeed, a wonderful idea that can help Christians to engage in interfaith relations and acknowledge that all religions are fragmentary manifestations of God’s mission on earth. But when a tradition such as Buddhism has no notion of an Ultimate God the proposition of mission being God’s initiative becomes a difficult concept to apply universally, at least in relation to Buddhist-Christian understanding of God’s engagement in the world.

Since my presentation is not a formal lecture it is important to keep my argument simple and highlight some of my observations of how Buddhism has come to fascinate the minds of Australians. Following are some examples:

  • People who are “converted” to Buddhism on a given day in Australia are much higher in numbers than those who would be converted or make a renewed commitment to the Christian faith. This includes conversions to “evangelical/fundamentalist” Christianity.
  • When the Dalai Lama visited Australia in 2002 he was given an audience with 5000 high school children. He expounded the Four Noble Truths to them – that is all. But his visit to Australia and the encounters people had with him were seen in “messianic” terms. What is about our preaching about Christ that prevents people receiving him in messianic terms?
  • People who attended my four-week study series on Buddhism in my small parish attracted twice as many people than the normal Sunday congregation. I too often expound the Four Noble Truths through biblical texts. (To be fair to Biblical interpretation I must say that I use the Four Noble Truths as a hermeneutical tool to expound some biblical passages). However, I do not attract 5000 people to hear me. While there some humour in my example here, one must ask why biblical passages no longer speak to people if interpreted in traditional ways. 
  • I receive invitations from conservative country regions of Victoria to speak on Buddhism. Some of these invitations come from groups that have spirituality sessions in pubs. (It is an interesting question to ask: why people would come to a pub and not to a church to discuss spiritual things? This says something about church.
  • I also teach Buddhism (and also Religious Traditions of South and South East Asia) as a specialist unit for undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. It is interesting to note how individuals who take these units sometimes confess to have re-discovered their Christian faith through the study of Buddhism and other “Asian religions.” While this is to be expected in the study of any religion, I keep asking myself what is it about the “western culture” that prevents individuals coming to understand fully. Some reasons are explained below.


At present Buddhism is seen as offering an explanation for the following experiences in the West:

  • The two World Wars and the subsequent catastrophes in the world which demonstrated that technology could be used not only to better life, but also to its destruction and to cultivate perpetual greed and selfishness. We must note here that globalisation and McDonalization of the world have been made possible through technology. 
  • The “Just-War” theory which is a product of the Christian tradition. (the just-war theory was introduced by Cicero and then developed by St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas and later by both Catholic and Protestant scholars).  Many Western Christians and leaders used it again to justify the invasion of Iraq.  Then, in the tradition of eliminating tyrants, we witnessed the killing of Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay. Such an end to Saddam’s life is also, we are told, is desired and there is a US$ 25 million reward for anyone who can lead to Saddam’s capture. Whatever the justification of such actions is, we know that there is a moral dilemma here which is created by the Christian tradition.   
  • The development of the capital-based market economy in the West.  The “Christian faith” that once evolved as an inseparable partner of the Western tradition provided much of the “cultural resources” for political movements to harness, for instance, capitalism of which the end results were: individualism, materialism and consumerism. Consequentially, the ideal of self which had been seen as the gateway to all knowledge (and God) came to be regarded not as affirming a permanent soul, but as something for which one “shops”.
  • The personalisation of the message of salvation and the problem of human suffering. These are, indeed, directly related to the phenomenon of individualism that has its genesis in capitalism. (By the way, Calvinism made a significant contribution to the propagation of capitalism).
  • The phenomena of artificial intelligence, computer simulations, and the hybrid of humans and machines which have in recent times removed the relevance of an authentic self. They have also created issues in relation to human identity. 
  • The way in which suffering is understood within the Christian tradition; The New Testament does not explain why suffering exists in the world. The Gospel narratives implicitly represent Jewish views that suffering is due to a punishment or retribution to sin.
  • Two opposing views of two Church Fathers – St. Augustine and Irenaeus – that shaped the western understanding of suffering.  While St. Augustine claimed that humanity at creation was infinitely perfect and suffering was the result of the Fall, Irenaeus (c. 130- c.202) suggested that humanity was created imperfect and immature and that humanity must attain perfection through a processing of becoming in the Maker's plan.  

Many people who belong to the baby boomer and generation X have come to question these issues one way or another. While some may not intellectually question these issues, they still seek alternatives to lead their lives meaningfully. In that process they distance themselves from the Christian message. Why? Christianity as we know and experience it today is conceived to party to the western civilisation which has come to be its bearer. Therefore, to the average “westerner” Christianity (and its message) is interchangeable with the issues that I have outlined above. 

Buddhism's pervading influence in Australia and in the West in general is a direct response to these issues and Lord Buddha’s teachings is perceived as: 

  • an antidote and cure for the unbearable saturation of materialism, consumerism and individualism experienced in the West.
  • an alternative to a civilisation tainted with blood spilt over  religious and political wars.
  • offering “non-theological” practical answers to these ills.
  • a guide through life without placing any metaphysical importance on “self” or God – the (wrongly) supposed architect of the collapsed project of modernity. 
  • a means to revitalise the depleted spiritual sap of the western civilisation.

Aloysius Pieris SJ, the Theravada Buddhist scholar, commenting on the increasing western interest in Asian religions goes as far as to say: “…[the] contemporary West, in allowing itself to be seduced by the mystique of the East, may probably be indulging in a massive sociological ritualization of a deep psychological need to sharpen its Oriental instinct blunted by centuries of misuse” [Love Meets Wisdom: A Christian Experience of Buddhism, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988, p. 8)].

The issues that I have briefly outlined in this presentation will help us to appreciate Buddhism and invite us to dialogue with it. Once we begin to decipher what is happening in our contemporary world and interpret them theologically one thing becomes obvious with regards to the significance of Buddhism:  We have to dialogue with Buddhism not only because it is considered a “world religion” but because the influence it exercises in the contemporary West is both a commentary on the socio-cultural, religious and political state of the West and the events that have occasioned such a state of affairs.


The Revd Dr Ruwan Palapathwala